By Mike Gray
“Novels, especially science-fiction novels, have been an important means of spreading the word where libertarianism is concerned. They will continue to be an important means of getting our ideas out.” — Jeff Riggenbach
Eric S. Raymond has written that science fiction (SF)
. . . has a bias towards valuing the human traits and social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies. Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. . . . the strongly-bound traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.
The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysenkoism). In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future.
From this, Jeff Riggenbach at Mises Daily concludes
. . . the widespread popularity of science fiction is undeniably one of the factors that has helped to keep individualism (including political individualism, otherwise known as libertarianism) at the center of American culture during the often-difficult years of the 20th century. All the best known libertarian novels are science fiction novels — Atlas Shrugged, Nineteen Eighty-four, We, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
In consequence, says Riggenbach
Science fiction is thus the natural literary expression of political individualism — libertarianism: it is, as Raymond puts it, “the literature that celebrates not merely science and technology but technology-driven social change as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.”
As proof of proto-libertarian impulses in SF, Riggenbach examines two largely forgotten books, The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt and The Great Explosion (“it is scarcely possible to conceive a more hardcore libertarian science-fiction novel”) by Eric Frank Russell. He excerpts a nicely-crafted passage from the latter that shows how Russell’s writing talents exceeded van Vogt’s. A new starship engine…
. . . made hay of astronomical distances and astronautical principles and put an end once and for all to the theory that nothing could exceed the velocity of light. The entire galaxy shrank several times faster than Earth had shrunk when the airplane was invented. Solar systems once hopelessly out of reach now came within easy grasping distance. An immense concourse of worlds presented themselves for the mere taking and fired the imaginations of swarming humanity. Overcrowded Terra found itself offered the cosmos on a platter and was swift to seize the opportunity.
A veritable spray of Blieder-driven ships shot outward as every family, cult, group or clique that imagined it could do better someplace else took to the star-trails. The restless, the ambitious, the malcontents, the martyrs, the eccentrics, the antisocial, the fidgety and the just plain curious, away they fled by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands.
In less than a century fifty percent of the human race left aged and autocratic Terra and blew itself all over the star field, settling wherever they could give free vent to their ideas and establish their prejudices. … It was written down in history as The Great Explosion.
“. . . they could give free vent to their ideas and establish their prejudices”: the libertarian ideal! Only a “Great Explosion” of some kind (possibly through technology) has any likelihood of liberating libertarians; without such a transformation, “[t]he restless, the ambitious, the malcontents, the martyrs, the eccentrics, the antisocial, the fidgety and the just plain curious” will always be among us, constantly pointing out our shortcomings at best and destabilizing or even destroying society at worst.
But what if it never happens? Why, that could be the theme of the next libertarian science fiction novel.
Addendum (Feb. 16, 2011): Could “seasteading” be the “Great Explosion” libertarians desire? Go here.